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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Panels 101: How To Not Run A Panel

I'm no expert on anime conventions - I've only been attending them since 2009 - but I've seen (and ran) enough panels to know when one is tanking hard and when one is succeeding greatly. Thanks to some of my less than stellar panel experiences at this year's Natsucon in Illinois, I've been inspired to write a list of things panelists should do and mostly definitely should not do if they want their panel to succeed. Some points might be kind of obvious to panel veterans, but you'd be surprise how the obvious things can simply pass by a panelist's attention and wreck the whole thing.

1. Decide your topic. It has to be one that you can discuss comfortably for an hour or more and that fits within the theme of the convention. In other words, don't bring your epic zombies versus vampires panel to a romantic lit convention. Also, make sure your idea is unique and not being done by another panelist; it will always confuse me that there were two cosplay basics panels in one weekend at Natsucon. Was that really necessary? This is the time where you should decide if you are going solo or bringing in a wingman; con chairs like to know ahead of time if a panel will be run by multiple people.

Read the rest of my pointers for planning and running a panel after the jump!

2. Create a game plan. What is the point of your panel? What are you going to do during it? Your panel can be informational or academic or entertaining but it has to have a purpose and a plan of action once it gets going. You can't just sit at the front of the room, introduce your panel, then stare blankly at the people until someone breaks the awkward silence. You also can not rely on those attending to give you ideas for what to talk about, especially if your panel is highly specific topic-wise and those attending might be newbies looking for information. If your game plan is to rely solely on audience participation, it's time to rethink the whole thing.

3. Make it interactive. You may think you are the most interesting person in the world but no one goes to a panel to hear one person pontificate for ninety minutes straight. The audience has to be involved with the panel in some way, either in conversation or other creative ways. For my Nanowrimo panel at Bishiecon '09, I introduced panel attendees to some of the writing exercises and sprints Nano veterans use every year to bump up their word count through some writing games that ended up being very fun. Just make sure it's something the entire audience can enjoy; it must be accessible by 90% of the audience (at least!) or it won't work. If it's a fan panel and you bring a video game based on the anime without a multiplayer function for people to play, you might as well leave it at home.

Also! If you are using Powerpoint, be aware that a PP presentation cannot be the crux of your entire panel, especially if there is a technical malfunction. Panels have died on the spot due to spotty PP presentations or tech breakdowns leading to no presentation at all. It should be an aid to your panel, not the entire panel on a computer screen. Showing off your awesome slides can be fun but after a while it can be boring if there is nothing to hold them up.

4. Plan ahead of time; be flexible. A great panel doesn't come together in the last 24 hours despite what some might think. You need to plan out the what, whys, hows, and whens of your panel down to the littlest of details in case something needs to be changed; it's always better to do the big changes before the convention even begins. You must also be flexible: if something you wanted to show off in your panel won't be there in time, replace it with something else. If one of your co-panelists catches mono days before the con, you will need a back-up plan to either pick up the slack or replace them without weakening the panel's overall message.

5. Be dependable and reachable. Especially if you are a panelist who is not on the convention staff! If the con chair needs to reach you ASAP, you need to give them all your updated contact info and trust said chair to reach you only in an emergency. You should also give said info to any and all co-panelists so you can plan as a group, not separate people; it really does show when there is no cohesive planning amid a group come panel time. Also, if you want to be a regular panelist at a particular convention, you have to not flake out the day you are expected to show up. Don't sign up for headlining a panel and then drop at the last second! When you do, it's the convention staff who have to pick up after your mess - and speaking as someone who has covered for a dropped-at-the-last-minute panel, it's not a lot of fun running around trying to come up with a decent panel to replace the one you cancelled. We won't hesitate at telling people the original panelist flaked out either, if we don't like your reasons for not doing it (see: panelist who dropped out of multiple panels, gah, and tried to cite a house fire - not realizing we could easily call her local fire department and find out it wasn't true).

6. Arrive early and prepared to your panel room. I usually try to get about 5-10 minutes before the panel's scheduled start time, especially if I had a slideshow or visual presentation to set up. It also helps people to see that there will be a panel starting before too long, especially if the panel room was scheduled to be empty beforehand. This, of course, means you will have to make sure the panelist before you on the schedule finishes when they are supposed to - but that's a convo for another point.

7. Make sure your tech works! There is nothing more irksome or irritating to watch than a panel being delayed because the projector doesn't work or the panelist takes time out of the panel itself to set up things better set up before the start. If you have A/V material to air, make sure you test it out beforehand so that you know without question that it will work when it has to. Don't try to play a video at the last minute only to find out the format isn't compatible with your computer's codecs - especially if your panel is solely reliant on visual media!

8. Don't treat your attendees like idiots. Assume safely that your audience is a mix of newbies, veterans, and people in-between but overall they are more than familiar with the main theme of the con at large. So don't, say, condescendingly give them a description of what anime is if you are presenting at Otakon. A good basic intro to your subject is good, especially if you use it as an exploratory test of how much your audience does or does not know about your panel topic. Just don't assume!

9. Don't be rude. No, seriously. I have actually been to a panel where the people running it were rude as hell, condescending to those attending, demanding that we pretty much run the panel for their lazy selves, and when people left during it (discreetly, I might add) decided to insult them behind their backs, most of the time before the people had left the room. Naturally, I hated the panel and have vowed pretty much to avoid any panel ran by that group of cosplayers (let's just say they give Kuroshitsuji fans a bad name). If you are friendly and treat your attendees with respect, you will be treated likewise.

10. End on time! Hell, end early if you can; it gives people more time to get to where they need to go afterward. If you panel is scheduled to end at 5:30, you should be packing up at 5:25 - especially if you are a serial panelist and have another panel to run right after. You must always be aware that your audience has their own schedule and want to see everything they can at the convention, which means they'll want to get to things on time lest they miss anything. It's hard enough to get into the masquerade when you are attending a panel before it that decides to go over its time limit!

Overall, your panel should be both informative and interesting, get the audience involved in what you are discussing, involve lots of diverse elements. Don't be an ass, make sure all your stuff works, and for goodness' sake have fun! If the panelist isn't having fun then how can the panel be enjoyable? Just make sure you don't have too much fun and run out of time, you know?

For futher reading on panel know-how, check out Reverse Thieves' excellent post on how to run a panel; believe me, they know a lot about running panels at anime conventions.